Teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron believes speech and debate programs should start early — kindergartners have opinions, she's quick to point out. Teaching children to understand how they speak to others, when applying for a job or even meeting a future friend, is as crucial to their lives as their ability to write.
“There’s no reason a kindergartner can’t develop three reasons why they like pizza over hot dogs or three reasons why numbers are more important than letters,” Wolpert-Gawron, who teaches at Greenwood Laboratory School in Springfield, Mo., said in an email. “Content knowledge is nothing if you can’t communicate it.”
Conversational speaking is a skill children learn, and master early. They do this without thinking when they’re together at lunch, passing in the halls and even on social media. Place them in the front of a classroom however, and the volume of their voice may fall, their hands flutter, and they may lose their conviction and their poise.
Speech and debate skills, however, are at the core of U.S. history and even the nation's founding documents. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution could have been crafted, let alone delivered, without the drafters embodying confidence, critical thinking and the ability to create a persuasive argument. These skills, taught in a speech and debate program, are also considered integral in today’s K-12 standards.
Speech and debate, however, are rarely mandatory subjects. Instead they’re often offered as electives, or even as after-school programs, unless a humanities, English, social studies or history teacher weaves speech and debate skills into their own lesson plans. That model, however, not give all students the opportunity to talk and converse with others early in their education. These skills also impact the part of the brain that is involved in language development and verbal skills, according to a study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Children who spoke often with their parents at home, from ages 4 to 6, showed “…greater left inferior frontal (Broca’s area) activation, which significantly explained the relation between children’s language exposure and verbal skill,” the researchers wrote. As Wolpert-Gawron noted, teaching speech and debate skills to this age group is something she believes educators can offer.
Learning how to converse is important — but the ability to take that to the second step, and build a successful argument is also correlated to academic success for older students.
A 2011 study from Educational Research and Reviews about the Chicago Urban Debate League found that 90% of urban high school students who took part in debate programs graduated on time, as compared to 75% who were not in debate. Researchers wrote “…that debate programs may offer a means to extend learning time and promote engagement with scholastic materials in a manner that translates into academic performance.”
Wolpert-Gawron, the 2017-2018 Missouri Educator of the Year, has seen her speech and debate program at Greenwood transform learning for her middle school students, including those who are English language learners and those who are not initially academically driven. To that end, she dropped the GPA requirement to join the program, because she believes these skills are so important, she wanted anyone interested to take part.
For those who don’t offer a speech and debate program at their school, Wolpert-Gawron says the same skills can be taught by having students, as early in their schooling as possible, give speeches in any of their core classes. They may not be going after a trophy — but the skills they eventually learn may be a win in and of themselves.
“It’s about helping them know that everyone gets nervous in front of people,” she said. “But we all learn how to hide that nervousness by thinking about what our voice is doing, what our hands are doing, what our bodies are doing, who we are looking at when we perform, etc. It is so important that we bring oral presentation and writing to our younger grades.”